Don’t Preach from the Twitter Lectionary: On Pastoral Ministry and Social Issues

How many tweets have followed something like this formula?

Pastor, if you don’t address _____________ [latest social media justice conversation] on Sunday, you have compromised the gospel.

I get the motivation. We want to make sure our ministry connects to real world issues. We confess that Christ’s lordship is universal, that he will ultimately redeem not only individuals but a new humanity, who will inherit with him a new creation where justice reigns forever. And so we pray and fight for justice in this present world as we seek to obey Jesus’ command to be salt and light, influences of righteousness in this world (Matthew 5:13-16).

But I want to give a word of advice to pastors who may be drawn in that direction for the public ministry of the Word: don’t let social issues drive your preaching and teaching. Let me first take a moment to define what I do and do not mean with that statement. I do not mean that you shouldn’t seek to shape the moral convictions of your congregation from Scripture if those moral convictions affect social issues. You absolutely should do that. For example, if the issue of abortion is touched by a biblical passage that I am preaching, I will not hesitate to declare the biblical truth that abortion is murder and that all human life should be protected. That is a straightforward moral conviction that is rooted in biblical revelation, and thus I will not hesitate to proclaim it when it comes up. However, proclaiming a moral conviction on the basis of biblical authority is not the same thing as wading into deep and complicated waters of specific societal policies and proposed solutions to complex societal issues. To go back to the abortion example, it would be a very different matter if I were to preach either for or against Tennessee’s recent version of the “heartbeat bill” on abortion. As a matter of fact, I think the bill didn’t aim high enough (it includes a trigger mechanism that leaves it unactivated so long as Roe v. Wade stands), but many Tennesseeans who share my conviction about the unborn supported it. As a pastor, I have no special authority to go beyond Scripture and say from the pulpit that my preferred political strategy is the best one. So I have no business speaking either for or against the Tennessee bill in my sermons. What I am advising against in this post is not proclaiming moral convictions that have public ramifications, but rather preaching and teaching that wades into specifics that are not directly addressed by Scripture, and thus where Christians who share the same moral convictions might come to different conclusions.

So, with the issue defined, here are three main reasons to avoid the Twitter lectionary:

(1) Preaching that is driven by social issues will inevitably absolutize prudential matters. What this means is that, when you focus on addressing social issues from the pulpit, you will be choosing to speak directly to matters that have no direct biblical teaching to guide you on the specifics. Without clear biblical direction, we must use wisdom to apply biblical principles as best we can, but the more complex an issue is, the more Christians are likely to apply and order legitimate biblical principles in different ways. Much of the discussion surrounding social issues moves in the realm of prudential matters, i.e., matters that are not clear-cut moral convictions. And if you preach on prudential matters as though they are moral absolutes, you are binding consciences where Scripture does not. Preaching driven by social issues very easily veers into legalism.

An example might be the hot button topic of immigration policy. To enter that conversation is to walk into a labyrinth of government policy, national interests, humanitarian concerns, etc. Various legitimate principles have to be ordered and balanced with one another in any sensible policy. How many immigrants should we accept annually, and how should we vet them? What law enforcement mechanisms and security measures should we have in place to regulate immigration? How should we address the fact that millions of undocumented immigrants live among us? As a pastor, I have no competence to address those issues in any detail, and the Bible doesn’t give clear and specific directions here. If I build a public ministry around concern for this issue, I will venture away from the ministry of the Word of God and instead give political lectures that mostly reflect my personal opinions. My sheep don’t need to hear my political opinions from the pulpit, and they especially don’t need to hear me seeking to impose those opinions on their consciences. Absolutizing prudential matters is disastrous for any ministry.

(2) Preaching driven by social issues will unnecessarily divide congregations. If you are going to cause division with your preaching, let it be biblical truth that divides. Do not cause division over anything for which you cannot say, “Thus says the Lord.” If the above point is on target, it means preaching driven by social issues will inevitably stir up division as you, the pastor, are perceived to be taking one side in a political debate that Scripture doesn’t resolve for us. The members of your congregation who disagree with you will find their confidence in your leadership shaken by the fact that you are willing to bind consciences to a political opinion for which you do not have solid biblical support. Furthermore, you will give the impression to your congregation that the unity of the church is primarily political rather than Christological.

Let prudential matters be prudential. Recognize the limits of your own competence and the scope of your authority. Just as you don’t give your congregants detailed instructions on whom they can marry or where they can work (within certain moral boundaries), so also should you not tell them how to vote or what opinions they should have on Byzantine government policies.

(3) You will never exhaust the riches of simply preaching expositionally from the biblical text. Your people (most of whom probably aren’t even aware of Twitter conversations) don’t need the social media lectionary for their nourishment in the faith. They need the inspired Word of God, from Genesis to Revelation, clearly explained and applied with precision to their hearts. If you focus on that task every Sunday, you will never lack something worthwhile to say. And your ministry will be built on God’s authoritative Word, not human opinion. That kind of ministry drives the roots of a church deep.

Pastors, your authority is not magisterial but ministerial. The legitimate exercise of your authority is bound up with the authority of Scripture. So let Scripture drive your preaching and teaching agenda, regardless of what the latest Twitter conversation demands.

 

Published by Aaron O'Kelley

Aaron O'Kelley (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a pastor and theological educator who lives in Jackson, Tennessee, with his wife and their three children.

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